Online Features Editor Ollie Smith interviews the MP for Bristol North West about a range of topics from Brexit to strikes
It’s Saturday afternoon in snowbound Clifton when I receive a call. It’s Darren Jones, Labour MP for Bristol North West who represents those living in Stoke Bishop; he’s stranded in London so our scheduled meeting is taking place over the phone.
I begin by asking him what he’s found most challenging since becoming an MP in the snap election of 2017. ‘Probably deciding what not to do’ he says, ‘you can be involved in everything if you want to but time in office is comparably short between Parliaments in terms of achieving credible change and so one of the things I realised quite early on was you need to be quite clear on what you’re not going to do as well as what you want to’.
Darren sits on the European Scrutiny Committee where his job is to ‘scrutinise any document that comes out of the European Union that will have a legally binding effect in the UK’ and the Science and Technology Committee which ‘scrutinises government policy wherever there is a science or a technology angle’.
Because of his keen interest in the EU I ask him if he’s happy with the Labour Party declaring its intention to remain in the Customs Union following Brexit. ‘Yes but I’d like it to go further’ he replies: ‘I represent a constituency that has a port and around 10,000 jobs, a lot of them are linked to import and export and logistics as well as chemicals and advanced manufacturing and most of those jobs have some connection to the trade of goods with the European Union so the customs union membership will mean that we will have no blockages at the ports in terms of imports and exports and that businesses will be able to get their goods out and also get their goods in’.
The Labour Party’s a broad-church
The Labour Party’s position on Brexit has been questioned since the general election with Jeremy Corbyn historically being a Eurosceptic. I therefore ask Darren if it’s difficult in trying to change the Party’s position. Darren explains that the ‘hard-left’ of the Party, the likes of Corbyn and John McDonnell, ‘think that Europe is based on a neo-liberal capitalist framework that might prevent them from implementing their policies. I mean I disagree with that, you only need to look at Emmanuel Macron nationalising a port a few months ago, there are state owned companies in France and Germany, you know we’re perfectly able to do that in the UK whilst remaining members of the European Union’.
Despite differences, however, he’s keen however to show Party unity: ‘The Labour Party’s a broad-church, I’m on the centre-left; I’m a moderate Labour MP, I’m not a hard left Labour MP but we wish to achieve the same outcomes and we want to protect jobs and industry in this country and I’m pleased that Jeremy and John have realised that that means remaining at least a member of the customs union and I’d say we’ve got a bit more work to do to get them to see the same conclusion in terms of the single market’.
Back on the topic of Brexit I asked if he supports a final say on the agreement, even if it meant remaining. ‘Yes. People deserve the right to change their minds once they see the facts. I think we’ve learnt a lot about the consequences of Brexit in the last 18 months … democracy didn’t stop at the last referendum’.
Darren also says that the government should make its economic impact assessments available for public viewing ‘because people need to understand that every form of Brexit is bad for the economy’.
By the end of the current Parliament he says ‘nationally I would like to have either stopped or mitigated the risks of Brexit which means either it doesn’t happen, with democratic legitimacy by another referendum, for example, or we’ve ended up in the single market and the customs union’.
I would like student fees to go back down
Darren says the part of being an MP that he enjoys the most is ‘the fact that tackling injustice is now my full time job ... I’ve been able to do something that I really care about on a full time basis which is a great thing’.
Locally he’s proud of tackling the issue of modern slavery and unethical working. ‘I’ve had a couple of raids of modern slavery businesses in my constituency where people have been trafficked into the country and then forced into work based enslavement’. Giving an example of restaurants that mistreat their staff he says ‘I’m hoping that we can push the Government to close the loopholes ... so that waiters and waitresses get to keep the tips that they’re given without their employers taking it from them’.
Renewable energy is another topic and he wants to find a way to utilise the tidal energy of the Bristol Channel effectively and develop ‘district heating’ where he hopes heat from industry can be used to warm homes and end gas use.
Moving to university issues I ask his opinion on the current strikes, which he supports; when I ask him if he thinks student compensation is fair he says no ‘largely because you wouldn’t get compensation in any other situation ... I can kind of see an argument that says look we’re paying a lot of money in tuition fees, we’re not getting the teaching time that we need therefore give us the compensation for that, I kind of understand the logic of that argument and I think there’s a whole other piece about whether students are getting value for money these days, I don’t think you are which is why I would like student fees to go back down’.
At 31 Darren is very young for a Westminster politician and says ‘The reason I became an MP was because I wanted to achieve change and I hope to be able to do that’; he is however realistic with his situation, admitting that his seat is marginal and ‘pragmatically you’d assume you’d be there for maybe five or ten years before being booted out’. If they want him longer, however, he says he’d be privileged to do so.
I was kind of pushed into politics because of my own experience of inequality and social injustice
He gives two reasons for his success last year; firstly ‘excitement around Labour which some of us including me didn’t expect, what that led to was an increase in our core Labour vote’ and because of ‘Brexit there were a lot of Lib-Dem and Tory voters who wouldn’t traditionally vote Labour who I think voted for me because they wanted a pro-European member of Parliament’.
But what got him into politics and why the Labour Party? ‘I grew up in Lawrence Weston in my constituency in the 80s and 90s which is in the days before the National Minimum Wage ... neither of my parents went into education after finishing secondary school so were on low incomes ... it was a time of poverty and huge inequality and as a kid growing up you kind of saw that around you ... I was kind of pushed into politics because of my own experience of inequality and social injustice ... I’d seen the Labour Party you know doing great things in government ... I hold the view that you know I wouldn’t have been able to have gone to university if it wasn’t for Labour being in government because people from my background didn’t do that‘.
The Tories have their heads under a Union Flag pillow with Rule Britannia on loud speaker, hoping it'll all be OK. It's time to halt Brexit. My (rushed!) response to #Budget2017: https://t.co/J9BA2T3XxI pic.twitter.com/buNAuZIOcy— Darren Jones MP (@darrenpjones) November 27, 2017
He values the last Labour government a lot so I ask if he thinks it gets a bad rap. ‘Yeah and I think it’s hugely disappointing when some of my colleagues criticise Labour in government because of course it’s all very good having principles but unless you’re in power you can’t really do anything about it’.
‘I’m not saying everything that the New Labour government did was right, you know Iraq is an obvious one ... PFI contracts perhaps weren’t the best way of rebuilding public service buildings and assets ... private providers in the NHS probably went a bit too far but there’s no getting away from the fact that three terms in government changed the face of Britain both in terms of economic outlook, our standing in the world but also our cultural acceptances ... we became a modern country as a consequence ... there’s lots of Tory policies now that would have been entirely unacceptable under Margaret Thatcher or John Major at the time but that’s because Labour had created a new normal in the centre-ground’.
I will want to see more houses, more affordable houses and better transport connections
By the end of the current Parliament he gives two things he wants achieved locally; firstly ‘quality of life, so when it comes to people’s pay and rights at work, their access to good employment, childcare and gender politics are something that we’re doing a lot of about family life, I’m hoping we’ll have made some improvements on those issues locally with local businesses and providers. And secondly about infrastructure in Bristol which isn’t an easy ask but I will want to see more houses, more affordable houses and better transport connections and links by the end of my time in office and I expect to see those delivered’
We had been chatting for over half an hour and honestly could have gone on for much longer. Darren is incredibly passionate about his job and even more so for his local community. I can’t begin to imagine the huge amounts of work he most go through. With so many people relying on him the sheer responsibility of an MP goes beyond, I think, what many people realise.
Featured Image: Unsplash:Jamie Street
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